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5613 Duraleigh Road, #101
Raleigh, NC 27612
Telephone: (919) 782-4597

“Brain Food” – What It Is, What It Isn’t

Dr. Dan Chartier, a physiologic psychotherapist and co-founder of Life Quality Resources, considers food fundamental to mental health. “Unfortunately, too many of us eat the Standard American Diet—commonly known as the ‘SAD diet,’ because it is high in processed foods, sugar and salt, while lacking in fiber, phytonutrients and healthy fats. That diet does have an impact on brain function,” he says. “Without good nutrition and good hydration, the brain can’t function optimally.

Brain mapping is an effective tool Dr. Chartier employs to help clients understand the power of self-regulation.

“I frequently see the impact of poor diet in my work,” he says, “because it interferes with patients’ ability to improve attention or diminish anxiety. For example, a person with anxiety typically has a excess beta activity and less than a typical amount of alpha activity. Alpha is the calm, relaxed state. Beta is the very hyper, vigilant, anxious state. And if that person is consuming lots of stimulants— not medications but stimulant drinks, such as coffee, cola, Red Bull, anything that’s got caffeine—it increases beta activity, and intensifies the anxiety.”

Nutrition choices, he notes, “also have a huge impact on attention and focus. In fact, Dr. William Sears, a pediatrician who has studied the connection between diet and ADD, suggests that many children are actually suffering from what he calls NDD—or nutritional deficit disorder—rather than ADD.”

Foods Can Feed Your Brain, or Its Issues

“Many foods contribute to attention problems,” says Dr. Chartier. “Sugar, for example, is very relevant to mood and emotional disorders. Excessive sugar intake creates imbalance in the body. The same amount can send one person into an over-excited, higher frequency brain state, or leave another in more of a stupor. In fact, a meditation teacher once wrote the two enemies of a clear consciousness are agitation, meaning being overly anxious or overly aggravating, and stupor, being a more spaced-out state. Either condition interferes with clear consciousness, attention, and focus.

“So we try to get people into that middle state where they’re balanced— feeling calm, relaxed, present, aware, and undistracted. And diet definitely plays a role in that process. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to see a child coming in for an appointment to treat attention deficit issues, bringing in the Happy Meal they picked up from McDonald’s on the way here. We can see what happens to their brains after they’ve ingested these foods—which are high in sugar content—and it’s not pretty. And we know when we encounter that, we need to make a correction very quickly.”

Dr. Chartier also notes that food allergies can interfere with optimal brain function. “Even something seemingly ‘healthy’ might actually cause or exacerbate inflammation for a particular individual,” he says. “The good news is that biofeedback can help people identify such issues.”

While some foods harm brain health, there are foods that help brain function, he notes. “For example, fish oils play both a structural and functional role within the brain. When the cellular structure is functioning well, neurotransmitters like serotonin, dopamine, and catecholamine will be more balanced. In fact, most antidepressant medications or SSRIs focus on just that, chemically blocking the reabsorption of serotonin to help the cells function more effectively.

“The omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids found in fish oils do that in a natural way,” explains Dr. Chartier, “helping the brain function as it’s designed. “Certainly, someone who is significantly depressed and nearly non-functional would likely need more than fish oil, but fish oil is a good place to start to find that balance of effective brain engagement.”

Improving Attention and Focus

In addition to diet, screen time is another major influence on brain function for both children and adults, notes Dr. Chartier. In addition to gaming and cell phone use, both work and school have temporarily shifted to be significantly more on-line. And the resulting increase in screen time—especially when it’s a substitute for direct personal communication— not only affects brainwave activity, but there’s evidence it contributes to social isolation and disconnection.

“While the sources of attention problems vary,” notes Dr. Chartier, “the solution is the same: self-regulation. We work with each client to develop the skills needed to focus their attention. We are able to identify causative factors from a neurological level, by measuring and assessing discernable activity in the brain. And using biofeedback and neurofeedback, individuals can learn to listen and adjust to cues that allow them to focus their attention.

“Just like any athletic or musical skill,” notes Dr. Chartier, “awareness can be developed with training and practice. A recent example we’ve seen is a 10-year-old client of mine suffering from attention issues. In just a few weeks of biofeedback sessions over Zoom, his focusing skills have improved so that he and his parents have already noticed a difference in his ability to respond appropriately without being distracted, anxious or distressed.”

The Process Can Work Differently than Expected

“When I think about the impact of food on health, I’m reminded of the inextricable connection between mind and body. It’s what my practice is all about. And one patient comes to mind that illustrates the connection in an unusual way.

“Some years ago, I worked with a woman who was both a highly functioning executive and a dedicated mom and wife. But she had developed abdominal pain that just wouldn’t respond to typical medication.

“She had very high levels of tension as measured by muscle contraction and fast frequency brain activity, and it was surmised that the source of the pain was the extreme tension in her body. However, over a few months, she did sufficient training sessions to significantly reduce those levels of tension, but the abdominal pain persisted. When the pain continued despite her release of tension and anxiety, all the arrows pointed to an organic cause that just had not been found.

“I referred her to an internal medicine specialist who was able to diagnose and verify that she had a genetic defect in the plumbing of her bile duct. Certain foods would trigger her pain.

“Biofeedback didn’t solve her pain problem. But, by eliminating the assumed cause—tension—it permitted an accurate diagnosis and solution. And by eliminating the pain, it also reduced her stress.”

Whether it plays a direct or indirect role, says Dr. Chartier, “food is a cornerstone of health—mental, physical, and emotional.”